Why We Still Need 'Maniac Magee' After 25 Years

It seems fitting to look back after 25 years at a children's novel that is so much about memory. This week, on the 25th anniversary of Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee , it's almost unreal how much the children's book still resonates. On Tuesday, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers will reissue the special 25th anniversary edition of Spinelli's critically acclaimed tale that all of us likely read in our younger years in school. The special edition will include a Q&A with Spinelli and fellow Newbery Award winner Katherine Applegate, who will also write an introduction to the story.

Back to memory: Many people have called Maniac Magee a "tall tale," and it's not hard to see why. (In fact, many criticized Spinelli for making his story a tall tale, a "cop out," which is off base IMHO.) Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac" Magee can run forever, running wherever he goes; he can hit home run after home run off John McNab's fastball; he's not scared of the backyard of the dreaded Finsterwald; he can untie any knot; and he's not burdened by a pizza weakness like most children, as he's allergic to pizza. It's no surprise the orphan is a legend in Two Mills, Pennsylvania.

But calling Maniac Magee merely a tall tale doesn't quite do it justice, and it takes away from the very real themes that make the novel not only still relevant, but still necessary today for children.

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, $7, Amazon

Instead, we can look at Maniac's story through the lens of children's eyes (if you can remember what that's like.) Aren't we all the larger-than-life heroes of our own stories in childhood? In his Q&A, Spinelli directly addresses this "tall tale" issue, elaborating on a comment he once made referring to his book as a "childhood recollected":

I was taking note of the tendency to recall our childhoods in almost mythical terms. Memory makes legends of us all.

In his own story, Maniac overcomes being a homeless orphan. He teaches former-minor league baseball player Earl Grayson to read. He runs ran all the way to Two Mills and, literally, unable to see the difference between black and white, bridges a racial divide that has constricted the town. But memory makes legends of us all. In his Q&A, Spinelli he doesn't call his book a tall tale, he calls it "a kid on his own in a world too real." These issues of homelessness, literacy, and racism — and how the three intersect — were not solved by Maniac Magee, and Spinelli knows that, too. But he also knows the importance of joining together to try.

The history of a kid is one part fact, two parts legend, and three parts snowball. And if you want to know what it was like back when Maniac Magee roamed these parts, well, just run you're hand under your movie seat and be very, very careful not to let the facts get mixed up with the truth.

In honor of this story about the idolization of memories, we can look back at Maniac Magee and how Spinelli was able to use the story of a charismatic, legendary young boy that's as fun to read aloud as any picture book to introduce young readers to problems that did and still do plague our society.

Amanda Beale and the Hope of Literacy

Aside from Maniac Magee, Amanda Beale is the most legendary character from Spinelli's book — and certainly my favorite growing up. She treats her limited supply of books as if they were made from glass, carrying them around with her in a suitcase so her younger siblings can't ruin them. When pages from her favorite books are torn, she cradled it like "the broken wing of a bird, a pet out in the rain." To her, and to Spinelli, books are that valuable.

Literacy, Spinelli knows, is crucial to build yourself out of poverty. This, of course, is still a primary societal issue today, when there are 781 million people worldwide who can't read or write. Supporting childhood literacy can prepare new generations for school, jobs, and general success in society. Books are a form of hope for the future.

Jeffrey Magee Searching for a Home

They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump, the story begins. But after spinning stories about Maniac's legacy, part one begins:

Maniac Magee was not born in a dump. He was born in a house, a pretty ordinary house, right across the river from here, in Bridgeport. And he had regular parents, a mother and a father. But not for long. One day his parents left him with a sitter and took the P & W high-speed trolley into the city. On the way back home, they were on board when the P & W had its famous crash, when the motorman was drunk and took the high trestle over the Schuylkill River at sixty miles an hour, and the whole kaboodle took a swan dive into the water. And just like that, Maniac was an orphan. He was three years old

In the Q&A, Spinelli says this character's origin was partly inspired by his best friend, who was found in a wicker basket as a baby outside a church. Maniac longs for an address, a home "where everybody talks to each other and uses the same toaster." But when he's brought in first by Amanda Beale's family, he realizes that his presence as a white child in a black family's home is causing issue. In short, he fears that tragedy, like with his parents, befall anyplace he tries to make his home. This isn't stuff of a tall tale, this is a hurting young boy.

And like in real life, Spinelli addresses the obstacles people have without an address. "You can't even get a library card," Amanda tells Maniac. These are issues that still plague our society, and while Maniac was able to find a home and a family with an address on their house, Spinelli knows that this is not the norm and something must be done to help.

The Black and White Divide

Long before Trayvon Martin, the Baltimore protests, Ferguson, and "I can't breathe," Spinelli talked about the racial divide in Two Mills, loosely based on his hometown in Norrisville. Two Mills was torn apart by racism and ignorance, and it could be most other cities across the country, but Spinelli never makes the reasons or solutions simplistic. The reasons we need stories that touch on this issue, especially for young readers, still stare us in the face every day.

In his Q&A, Spinelli addresses the lasting impact themes of racism in his story have:

Racism is still a problem, and I’m afraid it always will be. But there will also always be good people who see beyond the surface to the goodness in others. Therein lies hope, as long as people are people.

When Applegate asks Spinelli what he hopes today's readers can take away from Maniac Magee, he answers in the way he beloved character may have:

A wish to dance through life with partners of every kind and color.

Make a reason to reread Maniac Magee today — you have at least three right here. You'll find it still sends chills down your spine.

Image: [[[Matías]]]/Flickr; Cover Courtesy of Little, Brown